Tag Archives: Hebrew Bible

SBL Proposal #1

I’m preparing the following proposal to submit to the SBL annual meeting’s Israelite Religion in Its West Asian Environment program unit:

“My Name is In Him”: The Messenger of YHWH and Distributed Agency in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East

This paper examines the nature and function of the Hebrew Bible’s “messenger of YHWH,” focusing particularly on the blending of the messenger’s identity with that of YHWH. It will argue that the earliest appearances of the messenger in the biblical narratives arise from the textual interpolation of the word malak in the interest of obscuring YHWH’s physical presence and activity among the Israelites. These interpolations will be shown to have predated other narrative traditions within the Hebrew Bible, but as a result of cognitive mechanisms related to the conceptualization of divine agency and its communicability that had long been in place within Israelite and Assyro-Babylonian cult practices, later authors were equipped to seamlessly adopt the notion of the mediation of a semi-autonomous divine agent who could speak and act in the very name of the God of Israel. This distributable divine agency would become conceptualized in one influential iteration as YHWH’s “name,” which could indwell architecture as well as anthropomorphic agents,  extending the deity’s presence well beyond the conceptual confines of earlier tradition and cult. The implications of this understanding of the Israelite conceptualization of divine agency are far reaching.


Thesis Posted

I am making my recently defended master’s thesis available in PDF format at this link. The title and an abbreviated abstract are below.

“You Will Be Like the Gods”: The Conceptualization of Deity in the Hebrew Bible in Cognitive Perspective

This thesis has two primary goals: (1) to analyze the contours and extent of the generic category of deity in the Hebrew Bible, and (2) to propose a semantic base for the term. It begins with a description of the fields associated with cognitive theory, and particularly cognitive linguistics. Chapter 2 examines the cognitive origins of notions of deity and discusses how this heritage is reflected within the biblical texts. The third chapter examines the conceptualization of Israel’s prototypical deity, YHWH, beginning from the earliest divine profiles detectable within the text. In Chapter 4 the discussion returns to the generic notion of deity, highlighting references within the biblical text to deities other than YHWH. The conclusion synthesizes the different sections of the thesis, sketching the origins and development of the Hebrew Bible’s representation of both prototypical and non-prototypical notions of deity. Implications for further research are then briefly discussed.


My Oxford Thesis Advisor’s New Book on the Septuagint

My thesis advisor at Oxford, T. Michael Law, has a new book out called When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible. This important book will hopefully open a lot of people’s eyes to the profound influence of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible on the development of early Christianity’s identity and scriptural heritage. Near Emmaus is currently hosting a blog tour. Check it out!


Cognitive Science and Theological Conflict

I am doing some interesting research on the way religious ideas, and specifically concepts of deity, developed in antiquity. One of the most fascinating things I’ve come across is the notion within cognitive science that certain perspectives on deity derive directly from universal patterns in human cognition. This is not to say that religion is indigenous to our minds, but that basic cognitive functions lend themselves consistently to particular conceptualizations of divinity. For instance, humans tend to interpret the ambiguous and the unknown in nature and society in terms of what is most important and influential to them, namely other humans. We are more likely to ascribe unknown events or entities to living agents—usually human—than to non-living phenomena.

For this reason, God and the gods are most naturally conceived of as anthropomorphic. They are also usually understood in terms of the cultural institutions and figures most ideal or central to a group: shepherds, kings, warriors, fathers, etc. As humans are social creatures, so too are deities. All deities have some manner of relationship with humanity. None operate completely independently, completely detached from humanity.

These are the intuitive and reflexive conceptualizations of the divine. Studies have shown that the brain is drawn to such ideas about deity, irrespective of theological orientation. For instance, Barrett and Keil (“Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts,” Cognitive Psychology 31 [1996]: 219–47) conducted several studies that involved testing the recall of details about short stories that the participants read about deities. Through a variety of variables and controls, the authors were able to conclude that when deprived of the luxury of theological reflection, the human brain is drawn to anthropomorphic and anthropopathic concepts of deity. Even for people well acquainted with Christian orthodoxy, the mind substitutes those ideas where it is more cognitively efficient.

But religious traditions often have the luxury of time and reflection, which facilitates the development of more complex and intricate conceptualizations of the divine. There is still a cognitive predisposition to the more intuitive concepts, however. This leads to different kinds of theological incongruities. In the course of the study, one participant commented:

When I pray? Well, I normally, I just think about like . . . a human bring, like a typical human being, long hair and the beard, and I think of on a cloud up in Heaven, and just, like, listening. I just kind of always picture God as like an old man, you know, white hair . . . kind of old, I mean, but I know that’s not true.

As another example, a scholar mentions a close Calvinist friend who is a theological determinist, but who is still involved in evangelical ministry, as if he believes people have any freedom in the matter. This kind of incongruity is accepted as a part of religious living, for the most part.

One related phenomenon I’m working with is the notion of intermediary deities. In early Near Eastern theological thought there were multiple levels of deity, with authoritative deities on the top, the active “sons of God” on the second level, and the servant and messenger deities on the bottom. As Israelite religion gave way to Judaism, and YHWH was compartmentalized from the other gods, they were all demoted to angelic status, but continued to fill the same roles as messengers and active divine agents. Second Temple Judaism (and rabbinic to some degree) inflated and expanded those angelic roles and identities, but later Christian sensitivities would find that expanded junior pantheon unpalatable. Some traditions would nevertheless replace those intermediary figures with saints. Like the angels, they served intermediary functions, taking prayers before God and giving an anthropomorphic and familiar presence to God on earth. This trend evinces the fundamental cognitive predisposition to conceive of the divine as anthropomorphic and physically present, as well as reluctance to give them up.


Quotable: Jill Middlemas

I think this quote is relevant for those who would dogmatically assert either the historical inerrancy or inaccuracy of the biblical texts. From The Templeless Age (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 10:

[T]he purpose of the Hebrew Bible is not to record history, but to preserve an interpretation of events from the perspective of the interaction of a people and their god.


Hobbins on Jewish and Christian Canons

John Hobbins has revised and expanded a collection of posts from 2007 into, bar none, the best blog post I’ve ever seen on the biblical canon. It limits itself, chronologically, to the Greco-Roman period, but that’s really all that’s necessary when it comes to the origins of the notion of a canon. If you’re interested in the development of the Jewish or Christian canons this is absolutely a must-read.


Monotheism – Still a Misused Word in Jewish Studies?

I recently finished a paper for a conference up in Canada and thought I would share it. It’s a response to Peter Hayman’s 1991 Journal of Jewish Studies article, “Monotheism—A Misused Word in Jewish Studies?” You can find my paper here. I appreciate any comments.


The Miqra’ Group

(HT Charles Halton) The Miqra Group is a new blogging group that aims to read the entire Hebrew Bible (in Hebrew and Aramaic) in two years. It comes out to 15 pages a week with BHS and 16 if you use the Reader’s Hebrew Bible. Their reading schedule is here. I think it sounds like a great idea.


When the New Testament Misreads the Hebrew Bible

In my previous discussion of James White’s reading of Psalm 82 I pointed out that James appeals fallaciously to the notion that Jesus’ reading of the psalm (John 10:34-35) must govern a believer’s interpretation. This is the principle of univocality, or the notion that the Bible represents a single, unified worldview, from beginning to end. This post will draw upon two places where the New Testament demonstrably misreads the Hebrew Bible, whether on its own or through the mediation of a mistranslated Septuagint, in order to show that assumptions like univocality are precluded by an informed reading of the biblical texts.

Heb 2:7–10 quotes LXX Ps 8:5–7, but the reading provided in the former is vastly different from the meaning of the latter. Here’s a brief look at Ps 8:5–7 as found in the Hebrew:

מָֽה־אֱנֹ֥ושׁ כִּֽי־תִזְכְּרֶ֑נּוּ וּבֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם כִּ֣י תִפְקְדֶֽנּוּ׃
וַתְּחַסְּרֵ֣הוּ מְּ֭עַט מֵאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכָבֹ֖וד וְהָדָ֣ר תְּעַטְּרֵֽהוּ׃
תַּ֭מְשִׁילֵהוּ בְּמַעֲשֵׂ֣י יָדֶ֑יךָ כֹּ֝ל שַׁ֣תָּה תַֽחַת־רַגְלָֽיו

The first line is clearly referring to humanity collectively. Both singular references to humans are indefinite and generic. The second line is grammatically contrastive (lowered // crowned), but semantically synonymous. The human is given a place of honor within the hierarchy of being, namely just under the gods (or “God,” although less likely). The dominion mentioned in the last line should not be understood as dominion over all God’s creation, terrestrial and celestial. Humanity obviously has no dominion over astral bodies. The following two lines provide proper contextualization: “sheep and oxen, and also cattle of the field; birds of the sky and fish of the sea, that which passes along the courses of the waters.” The author likely has Gen 1:28 in view: “. . . have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

The Septuagint translation is little different, although “gods” is rendered “angels.” The spatial “a little less than” of the Hebrew is also translated with βραχυς, which can be read spatially or temporally. This is the text quoted by the author in Hebrews 2, although the meaning there is altered. To begin, the author applies Psalm 8 exclusively to Jesus. The seemingly generic singular is used throughout, as with the Hebrew, but the referent is identified as Jesus when the author finishes the quotation thus (NSV):

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one.

“All things” is understood by the author of Hebrews to signify all created things, not just those put under humanity’s dominion. Heb 2:7 also omits the first half of Ps 8:6 (according to the best manuscripts), which states (in the Greek), “And you placed him over the works of your hands.” Other witnesses have this section, but the critical editions omit it. In the original composition this could not remain, since it was Jesus who was thought to be creator of “all things.”

The RSV translates βραχυς temporally here. Other translations offer a spatial rendering, but the author seems to be contrasting Jesus’ temporary subordination to the angels with his crowning with glory and honor. In other words, his death elevated him above that subordination. The author is likely reading βραχυς temporally. (The NRSV, by the way, changes the generic singular to plural and attempts to salvage the quotation as an accurate reading of the text as referring to humanity in general.)

What we see here is an example of a text being read according to contemporary ideologies and expediencies which differed greatly from those of its original author and community. Psalm 8 does not refer to Jesus, to the incarnation, or to his glorification. It refers to God’s grace in giving humanity a place of honor, which it does not merit, within God’s glorious created order. The author of the psalm and the author of Hebrews thus present two conflicting readings, undermining the notion that any principle of univocality governs the literature of the Bible. This does not mean the reading in Hebrews is useless, though. It renegotiated Christianity’s relationship with its sacral past, injecting new relevance into the text for Christians and strengthening their connection to Judaism’s sacred literature.

My next case study involves the application of a mistaken translation to a question of doctrine. In Acts 15:13–17, James appeals to Amos 9:11–12 in an effort to support through scripture the taking of the gospel directly to the Gentiles. It even seems James’ quotation settles the debate. The critical portion of Amos 9 reads,

I will rebuild the tent of David, which has fallen, and from its ruins I will rebuild it and set it up, so that the remnant of the people might seek the Lord, and all the nations which call upon my name.

This reading comes from LXX Amos, although there is a bit of movement. For instance, “the Lord” is an addition. The LXX actually omits the object, reading, “so that the remnant of the people might seek, and all the nations . . .” There is also a clause missing from Acts’ quotation (“as the days of old”). The important observation, however, is the Greek translation’s relationship to the Hebrew. The crucial section reads in the Hebrew, “that they may possess the remnant of Edom,” but is translated, “so that the remnant of the people might seek,” in the Greek. The confusion arises likely because of the lack of the mater lectionis which we find in MT in the word אדום. Without it, the word looks an awful lot like אדם, “man,” or “humanity.” The verb “to possess” (יירשׁו), was also misunderstood as “to seek” (ידרשׁו).

It is unlikely that MT is secondary. First, there’s no object for the transitive verb εκζητησωσιν, “that they might seek.” Second, the reading in MT makes more sense within the context. David’s fallen house would be restored so that it might reassert its authority, specifically in overtaking the remnant of Edom (see Amos 1:11–12) and “all the nations,” for which Edom functions as a synecdoche (Edom commonly acts as a symbol for all of Israel’s enemies [Ps 137:7; Isa 34:5–15; 63:1–6; Lam 4:21]). The notion that the restoration of the Davidic kingdom would cause the remnant of the people (why are they only a remnant?) and all the nations to seek the Lord is also a bit of a disconnect within Amos.

This quotation shows not only that the early church relied on the Septuagint, but that it rested significant doctrinal decisions on the Greek translation, even when it represented a misreading of the underlying Hebrew.

The notion of univocality within the Bible as a whole is irreconcilable with these data. The axiom that scripture should interpret scripture is wholly undermined by these two examples (and many others could be pointed out). There is not only one voice in the Bible, and I do not think it prudent to approach any single chapter or verse within the Bible assuming that it contains only one voice. There are numerous voices throughout the biblical texts saying numerous different things for numerous different reasons. New Testament exegesis of an Old Testament text is no more authoritative a reading than that of any other exegete.


Quotable: N.T. Wright on C.S. Lewis

I don’t read much N.T. Wright, but Michael Bird linked to a Touchstone article by Wright on C.S. Lewis, and I really enjoyed it. As a specialist in Hebrew Bible I appreciated the following comment, which deserves repetition:

Every step towards a de-Judaized Jesus is a step away from Scripture, away from Christian wisdom, and out into the world of . . . yes, Plato and the rest, which is of course where Lewis partly lived. If you don’t put Jesus in his proper context, you will inevitably put him in a different one, where he, his message, and his achievement will be considerably distorted.


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